The politics of four dollars – Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail on Kickstarter and development budgets

Kickstarter

Following the news that Double Fine is to split its crowdfunded game Broken Age into two so that the first part can help fund the second, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail gives his insight into the complexities of budgeting for game development.

Imagine you need four dollars to make a sports game. Seriously, let’s imagine it costs four dollars. Sure, it’s going to be somewhat of a tight budget, but it’s doable.

It’s a sports game made with a great team, well-crafted and beautiful and progressive and in your mind, it is everything you want it to be. You go straight for some publisher funding, and through some rough negotiations you end up getting the project signed with EA Games at 30 dollars.

With all this extra money, you could make this a way better game for the consumers. You look at your scope – what we call our goals – and decide to re-scope the project for thirty dollars. You can’t make a game that costs four dollars with this budget – what will the publisher think? What will people think? It needs to show these production values.

You start working on the game and several months into the production of the game you’re down to the last 10 dollars and the things you’ve designed for thirty dollars might be a little bit more than you can afford to properly make with those last 10 dollars. Of course, marketing has already started talking about the game and expectations have been raised that this will be a production with good values. You look at the new scope and decide you need an additional 15 per cent of funding, let’s say another four dollars. With 14 dollars, you should be good.

EA Games refuses the additional four dollars and you start running out of money. You mention this in the press and in interviews. You talk about how you can’t just cut down on scope at this point. EA still refuses the extra money. The game is released in a state that’s not nearly as good as it could’ve been. People are disappointed, your game gets slammed on Metacritic and finally, you decide to explain your side of the story in the press. You talk about the initial overfunding, the subsequent overscoping, the long hours, an increasingly battle-worn team struggling against an uphill foe while money was running out, a game that was going to under-deliver no matter what. If only you would’ve gotten that additional few dollars of funding to really wrap up the game.

Imagine what the comments would look like. EA would get slammed. Hadn’t they been warned about those four extra dollars?

Now multiply all the values by 100,000, replace EA Games with Kickstarter, sports game with adventure game and you with Double Fine. 

Isn’t this exactly the beautiful thing about Kickstarter? That developers don’t have to compromise, like they would’ve if they’d been beholden to a publisher? That we can find new, creative solutions to problems like these?

There’s no doubt that overscoping is a problem and there’s no doubt the responsibility is on Tim and his team. Here’s the deal, though: this is game development and some games are made with under half the budget, some are made that need double the budget. Double Fine set out to make a game with eight times the budget we had on some of our titles and suddenly had to re-scope when Kickstarter expectations were they were going to release a game that’s worth three million dollars. Instead of holding back, they are trying to give every single one of their backers the maximum amount of game for their money.

Kickstarter has some weird quirks to it and overfunding combined with consumer expectations seems like one of the most devious ones. That they managed to stay within a margin of error of 15 per cent is also on Tim and his team and I think that’s an impressive margin. I think it’s even more impressive that they communicate openly and honestly about these problems. I’ve always tried to be as open and honest about this at Vlambeer. This is not some hyper-idealized reality for a documentary: this is real.

Welcome to the trenches, internet – and thanks for taking people there, Double Fine.

This piece originally appeared on Rami Ismail’s blog, and has been republished with permission.